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July 26, 2006

How Utopian is Utopia? Thomas More's Utopia

Posted by Lincoln Allison

by Thomas More
first (Latin) edition Louvain, 1516
first English edition in a translation by Ralph Robinson, London, 1551

Included in Three Early Modern Utopias
by Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Henry Neville
edited and introduced by Susan Bruce
Pp. 250. Oxford World's Classics, 1999

If you "Google" Utopia you come up with just short of 48 million items. They include a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, a gay and lesbian club, a bathroom design firm etc. As with the most famous of the "Anti-Utopias", 1984, with its "Big Brother" and its "Room 101", the imagery is powerful and pervasive. Thomas More and George Orwell were from an advertising agency to die for, as they say these days. Utopia is an image far better known than Plato's Republic which inspired it and which it pastiches and develops to different degrees.

Yet it is hardly worth asking how many people have read the original. To be pedantic the original is in Latin - More was an excellent linguist - but what is often thought of as the original is Ralph Robinson's English translation. The pre-Shakespearean language presents obstacles to the modern reader, the principal of which is the changing meaning of words, though in the Oxford edition Susan Bruce offers a useful glossary. The reader also has to accept that this was a period in which one wrote "Forsooth", "Yea, verily" and "quoth he" without irony.

Robinson added sidenotes which are sometimes desciptive of the material, but which also sometimes highlight More's wit and the strength of his arguments. I confess to a certain envy on this score. It would be nice to have a friend and admirer who went through one's book adding things like, "This is a cracking argument" and "Nobody could have put this better".

In Book 1 More meets with one Ralph Hythloday, a Portuguese who has travelled extensively with Amerigo Vespucci and spent five years in the land of Utopia. The scene is Flanders and there is a discussion involving these two, a friar, a cardinal and a lawyer. This is largely concerned with the problems of England, a country where "sheep are devouring men": arable land is being turned over to the lucrative wool trade, creating a dispossessed underclass.

One result is a very high rate of crime. Curiously, this leads to a discussion of a version of what later became called the "Utopian paradox". Observers are shocked by the severity of the English penal system. Thieves are regularly executed, a practice for which there is neither ancient precedent nor biblical justification. But the lawyer argues that, having instituted such severity it cannot be relaxed, because if the punishment is diminished the rate of crime will go up. (There are parallel arguments about legalising drugs in our own times.)

The nature of the paradox in general is that if you want to effect a radical improvement in institutions you cannot do so without first improving people, but nor can you improve people without first transforming institutions. An important rider adds that therefore it is often the case that attempting improvement will make things worse.

Hythloday (the name can be taken to mean "peddler of trifles") is persuaded to describe life in Utopia, and this description takes up the rest of the book. Utopia is a distant island (though elsewhere it has neighbours) which was populated some 1700 years before the time of writing by shipwrecked Romans and "Egyptians" (who were ethnically and linguistically Greek). It has its own language and alphabet, which are clearly descended from Mediterranean origins. Its institutions owe much to one Utopus, described in the Robinson translation as "King", but this is not accepted as a correct title by later translators.

Rather than describe those institutions in great detail I think it is most important to consider two broad questions. The first concerns the spirit in which More wrote. He has two very famous stage forms. In the twentieth century play, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, he is rather earnest and saintly. But in the sixteenth century version, Thomas More, among whose authors Shakespeare has been identified as "Hand 4", he is more of a smart-arse, much conscious of his status as an intellectual superstar, but nevertheless showing a steely integrity in his dealings with the London mob during the anti-foreigner riots of 1517 and in his mysterious quarrel (they are unable to mention the divorce issue) with the King after 1527.

The differences are of style and emphasis rather than substance, but reading the text seems to fit Bolt's picture rather than the script committee's. However, in a letter to Peter Giles included with the text since the original translation he has a lighter touch and seems reluctant to allow us to take Utopia too literally or seriously.

The second question concerns the presuppositions of a Utopian construction or the nature of a Utopian discourse. Literally, of course, the name means "nowhere", but it has come to mean the place where the ideal or perfection is realised or, at least, something a jolly sight better than the place from which the Utopia is being constructed.

But "better" according to which values and whose interests? Can one construct one's own? Years ago I used to work on mine during "prep" after I had finished my homework. It was an island, slightly larger than Yorkshire, with a high proportion of moor and mountain. The inhabitants played sport every day and practised completely free love. They gave their highest accolades to the makers of pies, sausages and wrought iron gates . . . .

But this was a mere pornotopia, a fictional place where (my) desires would be satisfied. Utopia has the accepted implication of realising some universal values. So what are they in the original? The society is not "perfect": it has forms of rank and hierarchy and fairly unexceptional forms of organisation, owing something to Saxon and Norse egalitarianism and little or nothing to Norman feudalism. Much crime is pre-empted by socialisation and education, but not all. Criminals are made "bondsmen" and expected to work under strict terms, but not executed. There is something like a national health service with quarantine hospitals, but people still get ill and die.

Interestingly, for a catholic martyr, there is euthanasia for those in severe pain. Also divorce, but it is "fault only" divorce which allows the wronged party to marry again while forbidding further relations to the wrongdoer. Although marriage is arranged in a traditional kind of way one is allowed a veto based on a full naked view of the intended. (It is said that More practised this himself, showing William Roper both his daughters, front and back, and offering him the choice!)

Utopians work extremely hard, both at their normal labours and at public services, including military service. They eschew the trappings of wealth and despise precious metals and gems, preferring useful metals like iron. There is no freehold property, but homes can be held for no more than ten years. The economic paradox of Utopia is that everyone works very hard, but produces neither the symbols nor the storages of wealth which create liberty and happiness in real societies. "Frivolous" games are banned and hunting is only functional. Neither glory nor pleasure is taken in any kind of violence.

In short, Utopia is a very sensible place with a tendency to go beyond the well-organised to the neat and symmetrical: all cities, for instance, are divided into four equal quarters. It is the well-provenanced ancestor of socialism. Utopians eschew the pretension and concern with status which typifies much of real human behaviour. They lack vanity. In one of the contemporary fan letters which has been published with the book since the earliest editions Guillaume Bude states that if the principles of Utopia could be adopted in our own societies (pp. 141-2):

We should soon see pride, covetousness, insane competition, and almost all other deadly weapons of our adversary the Devil, fall powerless; we should see the interminable array of law-books, (the work of) so many excellent and solid understandings, that occupy men till the very day of their death, consigned to bookworms, as mere hollow and empty things, or else given up to make wrapping paper for shops.
Utopia is better only if you love order, collectivity, stability and some fancy of equality. It is extremely authoritarian: you can only wander off round the countryside with the permission of your local head man and your wife, if you have one. "Educating" people to a philosophical and ethical way of thinking is far more offensive to liberty than merely executing them when they break rules even if its relative efficiency is tempting. There is no doubt that I myself, with my curious and conservative love of half-decent reality, would loathe Utopia. If they hadn't destroyed my soul first I would embark on a campaign of subversion, terror and mass murder. But not, of course, until I had vetoed quite a few brides, in much the spirit that my mother-in-law visits "show homes".

Pleasure is a matter taken seriously in Utopia, but it must be "true" pleasure. Having stressed that there can only be an illusion of pleasure in such pastimes as dicing and hunting, the account of Utopia continues (pp. 81-2):
They make divers kinds of true pleasures. For some they attribute to the soul and some to the body. To the soul they give intelligence and that delectation that cometh of the contemplation of truth. Hereunto is joined the pleasant remembrance of the good life past. The pleasure of the body they divide into two parts. The first is when delectation is sensibly felt and perceived. . . . The second part of bodily pleasure, they say, is that which consisteth and resteth in the quiet and upright state of the body. And that truly is every man's own proper health, intermingled and disturbed with no grief.
This is an important and valid argument. It is also still contemporary, being closely parallel to the critique by the Nobel laureate Tibor Scitovsky of the concept of pleasure in modern economics. It is not just that we cannot accept the Benthamite principle of just taking pleasure as we find it, whether in pushpin or poetry. It is also that we have a strong tendency towards a self-defeating itch-and-scratch concept of pleasure, which is seen to lie only in an ambition realised, a thirst slaked, a lust gratified, instead of in the sheer niceness of being. As Bill Bryson said in a recent speech to graduands which I heard:
Be happy! Really happy. All the time. Why not?
But if the Utopians have something to teach us about pleasure and offer us an important critique of modern economics, we must also be extremely cautious of treating the concept as an important one in an authoritarian context. Where pleasure is taken seriously, but many pleasures are classified as illusions, where you must be educated into the nature of true pleasures and there must be someone to educate you . . . . . there the concept of pleasure can become an instrument of tyranny.

The account of religion in Utopia is, in my view, the most revealing part of the book. When Hythloday arrives the country has a plethora of fairly similar gods and religions, but with a tendency to regard Mithra, the sun god, as prime or superior. There are very few priests! This point is often repeated and More demonstrates an understandable obsession with the excessive numbers and parasitic nature of the priests in his own society. Just as Mithraism proved historically to be the most fertile theological territory for Christian conversion so the Utopians look upon Christianity sympathetically and we learn in a postscript that they have converted. Utopus has declared a general principle of religious toleration, but with limits (pp. 109-110):
Therefore all this matter he left undiscussed, and gave to every man free liberty and choice to believe what he would. Saving that he earnestly and straitly charged them that no man should conceive so vile and base an opinion of the dignity of man's nature as to think that the souls do die and perish with the body, or that the world runneth at all adventures, governed by no divine providence.
This seems fascinating, not for the prohibition on atheism which would be normal and often justified by ethical pragmatism, but for the reason given. The necessity for the divine and the eternal arises from the dignity of man's nature.

Quite apart from the observation that the exact opposite cases (man's indignity requires God or man's dignity requires no God) would be equally plausible I think that here a great truth is revealed.

Notwithstanding that in vulgar contemporary politics "humanism" and "theism" are seen as opposites, they are here the same. Worship is ultimately self-worship: there can be no meaningful distinction between worshipping Man as himself or Man as God. This comes as no great surprise because More's closest intellectual associate was Erasmus of Rotterdam, so often labelled as a, even the, humanist. Both humanism and theism will ultimately license an institution to create tyranny in the name of saving your soul, whether it is the Inquisition or the re-education camp. When the real Armageddon comes the humanists and the theists can fight on the same side, their banners labelled "Order", "Togetherness", "Equality", "Stability" and "Dignity". We will just have "Truth" and "Freedom".

I note, incidentally, there are several Latin words which can be translated as "dignity" including dignitas, gravitas and decus. But try translating "niceness" into Latin!

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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(a) Worship is ultimately self-worship: (b) there can be no meaningful distinction between worshipping Man as himself or Man as God.

In regard to (a), it is obvious that the author has never come up against God and as for (b), God might agree with that:

But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?

These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.

Psalm 50: 16 and 21. Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 27, 2006 09:27 AM

Please, could you tell me if there is a name of a magic mountain called Sanatorium in Tomas Moor's Utopia?

thank you in advance

Posted by: Jovana at April 13, 2009 12:06 PM

1984 is not an anti-utopia. Not every dystopia is an anti-utopia. An example for an anti-utopia would be Brave New World, which was an INTENDED utopia. 1984 has never been about trying to build a society where things could work out. The pursuit of 1984's governtment has always been power.

Posted by: hank moody at November 3, 2009 09:13 AM
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